The perils of circular reasoning

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reacts as she is introduced to speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Apart from, perhaps, “it takes a village” the best known phrase that Hillary Clinton has ever coined is probably “vast right-wing conspiracy”. Perhaps she is hoping we will forget that she ever said it.

Last month she tweeted: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” Well, yes of course. Sexual assault victims deserve our support and, if they are disbelieved, it is probably very hurtful to them, as well as being a step away from dealing with the perpetrator. Unfortunately, this truism does not endow us with some magical ability to distinguish a real victim of sexual assault from a fake one. Nor is sexual assault a crime in which the rights of the defendant to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence are somehow suspended. 

Clinton’s statement is a truism. Contained within it is a definition which precludes the possibility of the accusation being false. Once you have accepted that the person is a survivor of sexual assault then you should believe that person, but once you have accepted that you have already believed the allegation. The reasoning is purely circular. 

Should Hillary Clinton ever return to the bar she will have no problem defending someone accused of sexual assault. If her client is innocent then the accuser is not a survivor of sexual assault and therefore does not deserve to be heard, believed and supported. After all, Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones, who made allegations of rape and sexual assault against her husband, did not, in Clinton’s mind, deserve these things. They were, in her words, part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. 

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s words on sexual assault brought a wave of reaction reminding her of a time when she held an apparently opposite position: except that it is not, strictly speaking, an opposite position, because she carefully worded her tweet to express only circular reasoning. She is implying she will support anyone with an allegation of sexual assault while, quite rightly, giving herself an exit. She cannot be fairly accused of dispensing with the presumption of innocence or Blackstone’s ratio. Her position is nothing more or less than saying “real victims are real victims”. Yes. Obviously.

A letter on the plight of refugees takes a similar circular position. It is signed by an impressive array of foreign and security policy experts from the last few decades, including three former Secretaries of State: Kissinger, Schultz and Albright. It says that “Refugees are victims, not perpetrators, of terrorism”. Obviously so. A terrorist disguised as a refugee would be a perpetrator not a victim, but the letter does not comment on such people. It claims that current procedures to vet refugees are stringent. It does not claim that they are perfect or could not be improved. Neither position could possibly be tenable. Which leaves me wondering what contribution these eminent people have made to the debate. While vetting procedures are undoubtedly stringent, Republicans are making an obvious, and almost certainly popular, point when they call on the administration to proceed with caution.

If the letter writers are merely saying that genuine refugees are genuine refugees then, like Clinton’s comment on genuine victims of sexual assault, their point is true but useless. It offers no path forward.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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